By Steve Griffin
The last time I sang “Happy Birthday” was at Peggy Swanson’s 14th birthday party. After that disastrous event, I swore off celebrating birthdays, my own or anyone else’s. When we graduated from high school four years later, Peggy was voted the best looking girl in our class. She probably would have had that distinction at 13 too if we had held a vote. She was blessed from an early age with “prettiness.” Her good looks appealed to both sexes. She was cute rather than beautiful, so disarmingly nice and with such a cheery mien, the other girls did not feel threatened, and the boys were not turned into tongue tied awkwardness. Everyone liked Peggy and Peggy seemed to like everyone. She distributed her sunny smile to her popular classmates and the near outcasts, for which I qualified with my knee patched jeans and volatile temper.
I was surprised and elated to find among our mail a few days into our summer vacation before entering high school, an invitation to Peggy’s 14th birthday party. My older sister, Sharon explained the RSVP to me. I called Peggy and told her I would be there the following Saturday. Then began the dilemma, what kind of present to get for this girl who had everything?
Her family was among the wealthiest in town, and it was evident Peggy and her brother Paul, a junior in high school, lacked nothing. The day after his 16th birthday, he had driven to school in a brand new shiny red sports car, conspicuous among the older model Fords and Chevrolets. Penny dressed like a model in one of the teen magazines the girls read so avidly.
My mother’s suggestions were no help. A book, hair berets, a box of candy were three of the lamest I rejected in horror, imagining Peggy opening them in front of the other kids. I decided to call Peggy back and tell her I had contracted a rare, possibly fatal disease, and regretfully would be unable to attend her party. “Don’t be such a dickwad,” my older sister said. “You’re very talented. I love the jewelry box you made me for Christmas. The beautiful hummingbird with its beak in the Magnolia blossom you made out of broken colored glass is magnificent. All my girlfriends think it is the coolest and would love to have one. I told them you did not want to make anymore. I want to be the only one to own something so beautiful, but I guess it’s o.k. if you make one for your little girlfriend’s birthday, if it will stop your moping around.”
“She’s not my girl friend! but thanks for the idea.”
The next few days I spend hours, sorting through the waste lumber scraps at construction sites and sifting through the bottles at the dump for just the right combination of wood and glass to construct my masterpiece. I sanded and lacquered and polished until I had accomplished what my sister acclaimed to be a real work of art. She marveled at how smoothly the drawers opened and closed and especially at the glass collage unicorn on the lid. “It’s better than expensive stained class,” she said. ”I bet if this was sold in a fancy store, it would cost a small fortune. She will love it.”
I swelled with pride, and gave my big sister a hug. She wrapped it for me, and the following Saturday I carried it to the party, dressed in my Sunday School slacks and white shirt. I laid my gift on a table already piled high. Mrs. Swanson brought out a big cake with fourteen candles. We sang “Happy birthday. Peggy blew out the candles. We ate cake and ice cream. Penny began opening her gifts. She oohed and ahhed over each and thanked each gift giver with a hug and a kiss on the cheek.
There were necklaces, bracelets, scarves, pins, gift certificates, and then, just before she came to mine, she tore the wrapping away from a very large jewelry box, covered in white satin, and when she pulled open the large top drawer, music played and a little ballerina spun in circles. She gave Craig Benson a hug and a kiss. ” It’s wonderful, the perfect place for my jewelry “
She opened my much smaller package next. She hugged me and kissed my cheek.”It’s lovely,” she said, “just lovely.”
I made it myself,” I stammered.
“You’re too cheap to buy her something, Ronald MacDonald,” Craig taunted. “What a loser.”
I turned and punched him in the nose. Blood erupted all over the front of Peggy’s birthday dress.“ She began to sob. “Ronald, how could you? Craig was just teasing.”
Peggy’s mother came running into the room and grabbed me by the arm. You have to leave, Ronald,” she said, “and you can be sure I am going to inform your parents of your boorish behavior. I should have known something like this would happen. I’ve heard you have been in several altercations at the school in the past. I tried to convince Peggy not to invite you, but she is just too nice for her own good. Now, run along you wretched boy!”
I take some solace now, years later that my hand crafted jewelry boxes and furniture have made me a rich man, and try not to gloat when I see Craig and Peggy Benson, bickering in public about his dead end job and the condition of their dilapidated Ford, but I still cringe at the sound of that song.
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